Friday, January 11, 2013

Back to the Good Fortune Diner by Vicki Essex

Why I read it: I picked this on up from NetGalley. 

What it's about: (from Goodreads)  Everville, New York — it's the town where Tiffany Cheung grew up, and the last place she wants to be. But after losing her job in Manhattan, that's exactly where she finds herself. Worse, she's working at her family's Chinese diner and feeling like the outsider she once was. The only bright side is that Chris Jamieson, the boy she used to tutor, is still around. Her high school crush is hotter than ever, and he needs her help… again. Tutoring Chris's son is the perfect temporary job. Except, Chris finally seems interested in her — and is hinting about a less temporary arrangement. Talk about bad timing! Because Tiffany's not staying and nothing will stop her from getting back to her real life. But maybe what's real is about to change….

What worked for me (and what didn't): This book generated a bit of buzz on Twitter and among my blogger friends because it has a Chinese-American heroine and race is one of the themes of the book.  Sometimes (many times?) it seems to me that ethnic/biracial characters could just as well be Caucasian - by that I mean to say that often different race is not portrayed as difference.  Partly, I wonder whether it is because there is a "we are all the same" idea about anti-discrimination, but I also wonder if it is authorial/editorial fear that books with characters that are "too different" won't sell well.  In fact, there have been a few posts which seem to suggest that it is the case that such books don't sell well.  I'm not sure what that says about the romance reading public.

In this book however, the differences about the typical middle class white upbringing and experience and Tiffany's Chinese-American upbringing (in small town USA no less) are part of the theme of the book.  Tiffany couldn't wait to get out of Everville. She hated being the a member of the only Chinese-American family in town.  Her reaction to the racism - both casual and vicious - she experienced as a schoolgirl meant that when she moved to New York City, not only did she have no plans to return (except for the occasional brief visit) and she turned her back on much of her heritage - even to the point of not eating Chinese takeout.  

Part of the book and one of the parts which worked best for me, was witnessing Tiffany slowly accept her difference and embrace her heritage.  By the end of the book, I felt she no longer cringed at the cultural differences and actively celebrated it.  Seeing her finally stand up to curmudgeon William (father of hero, Chris) was something special.  (Although, William's turnaround at the end felt a forced and not as genuine as his racism and general bad temper.)

Tiffany was a difficult character to like however.  She was prickly and sharp and critical and often rude.  The thing that saved her for me was that I knew what was going on in her head and it was mostly much different to what she was saying.  But how Chris would ever have known that and why he persisted in the face of monosyllabic answers and blunt-to-the-point of rude responses still mystified me.

Tiffany had crushed on Chris during high school when she'd tutored him in English, assisting him in winning a scholarship to Berkeley. (Chris was oblivious to Tiffany's attraction to him.  I can't blame him for that - she hid it extremely well.) But, seeing the woman she has grown into, Chris finds himself attracted and intrigued.   Back in town, after being laid off from her job and evicted from her apartment, Tiffany is in desperate need of money - so she can head back to New York.  She never has any intention of staying in Everville and this is made abundantly clear throughout the story.   So, when Chris approaches her asking if she will tutor his son, Simon, she accepts the position gratefully. 

Chris lives on the family farm, which he now runs as fully organic, with his son and his father.  Chris' high school girlfriend, Daphne, found herself pregnant and he dropped out of college to come home and marry her.   Chris' father was in a tractor accident and lost his leg and Daphne left, they divorced, she remarried and moved to California.  She barely has anything to do with Simon.  All three men are scarred by the Daphne's actions and this affects how they embrace Tiffany's entrance into their lives.
 “The last time he saw her was on his twelfth birthday. She flew up from California—that’s where she is now—and we drove out to meet her in the city. She gave him his gift and we took him to a ball game. But she didn’t stay for more than a night. She said the air quality was hurting her sinuses, and she flew home the next day. I’ve never seen Simon so disappointed in all my life.”
“I’ve known other people with killer migraines like that. She must have been going through hell.” To Chris’s surprise, she said it without a trace of sarcasm.
He laughed, low and flat. “I was kind of hoping you’d come out and say what I won’t.”
“Well, I was trying to be sympathetic, but all right. She’s a selfish bitch and you and Simon deserve better.”
Coffee nearly spewed through his nose. “And you didn’t even blink,” he gasped out as he recovered from laughing.
“I have issues with parents who don’t take responsibility,” Tiffany said without a trace of remorse. “If she’d really cared, she would have seen him anyhow. Or gotten help. Or done something. Migraines don’t last two weeks, or for that matter, three years.”
Simon is full of teenage angst and some of the reason for this remains a mystery to me  (I don't pretend to understand teenage boys) and his turnaround (in relation to Tiffany) seemed unexplained to me.  Even when he was telling his dad why Tiffany "gets him" I didn't get it.

However, I liked that Tiffany didn't take attitude from Simon and  her inner dialogue about some of his antics amused.
"...Sometimes I have to wake up at dawn to get things done so I can finish my homework at night. I barely have time now, working with you.”
Was that supposed to be a guilt trip? He obviously hadn’t ridden the Cheung family express, which made regular stops at Shameville, Honor Town and Duty City.
Daniel, Tiffany's brother, has a secondary romance in the book and for me, he kind of stole the book for me.  I felt for him so much, being the loyal son who stayed and worked in the diner, who looked after his parents, who put his own life on hold.  Selena, his long distance girlfriend is a doctor in New York.  Not only is she not Chinese, she earns more than he does and he doesn't know how to reconcile his picture of the "ideal wife", his family obligations, his self-worth. I found myself identifying more with him than with Tiffany.

Family obligation is a strong theme in the novel - with both main characters, with William and Chris both having to do some letting go regarding Simon's choices and in relation to the Cheungs.  Those family obligations were so strongly represented and the challenges for Daniel and Tiffany were so great, it was disappointing that much of it was left up in the air at the end.  I think that it could be said that there are no easy answers and not everything has to be wrapped up in a neat bow (even though I like it to be) and that is absolutely true.  But in Daniel's story arc in particular, it was something which I felt needed to be more fully addressed, even if only to make it clear what challenges lay ahead.  It's possible that's my distaste for any kind of ambiguity/lack of clarity showing however.

I wasn't sure there had been enough set up to explain/make me satisfied with Tiffany's actions at the end of the book.  I felt there was a quick turnaround and I wasn't sure what she was going to do career wise at the end.  I appreciated that Chris was prepared to make changes too, and I did feel that it would be easier for Tiffany to uproot herself (mainly because she had no roots in New York) than for Chris. Nevertheless, why is it always the girl making the changes?!  I wasn't sure what she was going to actually do at the end. Her character had been set up as someone who needed a plan and this lack  felt off to me.

The book left me with a greater appreciation of growing up ethnically different in a white society (something I have no experience of personally of course) and I enjoyed Ms. Essex's writing style. Some of her descriptions tickled me - they were amusing and apt, like this one:-
...he spotted a mangled vehicle in the garage.  It looked like a giant had clapped the car between its hands. The side-view mirrors dangled off both sides like sad bunny ears."
There was a lot to cover in this book and I felt some things which needed more page time were left.  For example, Chris and Simon's relationship improved over the course of the book, but much of Chris' changed behaviours was off page and inferred. 

Still, there was a lot to like and I'm glad I read it.  I'll happily read another book by this author.

What else? Can I just say I've had second degree burns (green tea) and I was in hospital for nearly a week so the experience of the same injury to one of the characters in the book didn't ring true to me.  The pain was horrendous.  The character was discharged the same day and the injury was barely mentioned again, which seemed odd to me.

I really liked the writing voice and I enjoyed the book but there were many things left unexplored and not fully realised in my opinion.  I think Daniel and Selena's story could have been a whole book in itself and I have many questions about what happens after the story finished - to Chris and Tiffany, at the Good Fortune Diner,  to Daniel and Selena.  I could have used another chapter or two to bed it all down.

Grade: B-

No comments: